Sunday, 25 January 2009

A true sign and symbol of ecumenism

The icon of Christian Unity in the Orthodox tradition shows the Apostles Peter and Paul embracing each other – a sign of the early Church overcoming its differences and affirming its diversity

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 25 January, 2009: The Conversion of Saint Paul

Acts 9: 1-22; Matthew 19: 27-30.


May I speak to you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

This past week has been the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Each day in the Chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, the students have drawn on prayers from different Christian traditions at the service every morning and evening.

On one evening, we had spontaneous prayers in a variety of languages from across the globe, including Greek, French, German, Spanish, Maori, Irish, Swahili and English, as the students prayed not only for unity among Christians but for peace throughout the world, especially in the Middle East and in those countries that have special places in the hearts of different students and staff members.

On Wednesday evening, we celebrated the Lima Liturgy, using an ecumenical Eucharistic liturgy that is shared by all the major churches around the world. Our guests included Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Methodists and Eastern Orthodox. And after praying and celebrating together, we then had a meal together.

The icon of Christian Unity in the Orthodox tradition shows the Apostles Peter and Paul embracing each other – a sign of the early Church overcoming its differences and affirming its diversity.

The older parish church in Rathfarnham, now in ruins in the graveyard, was named after Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and the Church in Springs, South Africa, linked with this parish is also named after Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

I was surprised, therefore, to find the most moving sign of Christian Unity in the past week for me was in this parish. On Monday morning, there was a large turnout in our neighbouring church in Rathfarnham, the Church of the Annunciation, for the funeral of Bridget Hanratty from Rathfarnham Wood.

We heard how Bridget’s sister felt that is was more than a coincidence that her funeral was taking place at the beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

For Bridget was a committed ecumenist. She taught in theological colleges and worked with other teachers and theologians from all the traditions within the Church and beyond.

Her son spoke of how the sacred scriptures of every major religion could be found on her bookshelves.

And, of course, every major tradition within Irish Christianity was represented at her funeral, including students, staff and former staff of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute.

From this parish, her neighbour Joan Forsdyke was asked to take part in the offertory procession, bringing forward a candle to represent Bridget’s commitment to working with other traditions and faiths.

Throughout her funeral Mass, there were constant reminders of Bridget’s Baptism. Connections were made constantly between the prayers and symbols of Baptism, which is new life in Christ, and the prayers and symbols of the funeral liturgy, which is rooted in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection: the water of Baptism, the oil of anointing, the Lord’s Prayer, the sign of the cross … and so on.

And I found that so moving. Because of course, there is only one Baptism. It is Baptism that makes us members of the Church, part of the Body of Christ, heirs to the Kingdom of God.

The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul (25 January) marks the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, squeezed between a feast day of Sant Peter and a feast day for Saint Paul. And the Apostle Paul constantly tells us that there is only one Lord, one Faith and one Baptism (Ephesians 4: 5).

Paul constantly challenges the Church about false divisions, whether they are on the grounds of gender, language, ethnicity or social class.

If we share a common Baptism, if we share the same Christ and the same faith, then our differences and our divisions must be confronted and must be overcome.

And that’s how Bridget lived her life. And in that she was a challenge to each and every one of us in the Rathfarnham area.

And now, may all praise, honour and glory be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the early morning Eucharist (Holy Communion I) in Rathfarnham Parish Church, Dublin, on Sunday 25 January 2009.